Flock of Spanish Immigrants Arrive in Israel to Help Boost Vulture Population

The 10 birds are part of an effort to save the country's vultures which are in danger of extinction.

Zoo employees examine a Spanish vulture, December 2016.
Gil Cohen-Magen

There are now 200 vultures in Israel, about half their number two decades ago. Their nests in recent years have not exceeded 50, as opposed to between 90 and 120 at the beginning of the previous decade, according to figures presented at a conference last week. Over the past two years the Israel Nature and Parks Authority has begun releasing the wild birds brought from Spain. However, experts say this will only delay the extinction of the population, and other means will be necessary if vultures are to continue soaring over Israel’s cliffs and canyons.

The figures were presented to the annual conference by the chief avian ecologist, Ohad Hatzofeh. From the conference he went on to Ben-Gurion airport to help receive 10 vultures arriving from Spain.

The decline in the vulture population has accelerated over the past two decades, mainly due to pesticides the birds ingest when they prey on the carcasses of wild animals intentionally poisoned because of the damage they do to agriculture. Other causes of the decline are poisoning by lead in hunter’s bullets that strike them and electrocution by high tension wires or by collision with such wires.

Analysis of the fate of 47 vultures released to the wild since 1993 from the captive breeding facility on Mount Carmel shows that eight of them were poisoned and nine were electrocuted by or collided with high tension wires. In half of the cases, cause of death was unknown. Thirty-five injured vultures were treated at the wild animal hospital at the Ramat Gan Safari, more than a third of which were poisoned by pesticides or lead from hunters’ bullets.

The parks authority began to release vultures to the wild from captive breeding facilities in zoos 25 years ago, and high tension wires were insulated in a joint project with the Israel Electric Corporation. Feeding stations were also established at nature sites, giving the vultures a regular supply of food, mainly cattle and sheep carcasses, due to a decline in their natural food sources. And beginning four years ago, an Israel Nature and Parks Authority truck has been making the rounds among the unrecognized Bedouin communities to collect carcasses of herd animals. The authority’s personnel check to make sure that none of the cow carcasses are diseased or have a high concentration of drugs that could harm the birds. Carcasses that pass the test are taken to the feeding stations.

Vultures are endangered throughout the Mediterranean basin. Israel takes part in cooperative efforts which have begun recently to save them. An example of this is Israel’s import of vultures from Spain, where there are 80,000 vultures, notes Hatzofeh.

The 10 vultures that arrived from Spain last week will be sent to the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. Some will reinforce the breeding nucleus there and suitable birds will eventually be released to the wild. Before they are released, the vultures are placed for a while in special acclimatization cages in nature reserves, to get them used to a natural environment. Such cages are already in use in the Golan Heights and the Judean desert, and will soon be installed in the Amud streambed in the Galilee.

So far, the parks authority’s efforts have not halted the sharp decline in nests in the north, which is the vultures’ main nesting area, as well as the main area of poisonings. In contrast, their numbers have increased on Mount Carmel, where nesting had previously ceased; this year, seven nesting pairs were seen there.

According to the experts, 20 vultures should be released to the wild every year, although this too will only postpone their demise in Israel, Hatzofeh said. “What is needed is more significant steps against actions that endanger them, such as poisonings.” He also called for changes in legislation to better supervise pesticides and restrict their use.

In another few years local vultures may face yet another risk, in the form of wind turbine farms, the blades of which have killed vultures in other countries. As a condition for installing the wind turbines, the parks authority has demanded zero tolerance for injuries by the blades to vultures or related bird species.